Suppose you had a film.
Suppose this film, along with its groundbreaking predecessor, advanced the medium in terms of how films could be made.
Suppose this film interweaves three story-lines smoothly in that Tarantino-like fashion, so much so that no one ever thinks to say that it interweaves three story-lines in a Tarantino-like fashion.
Suppose this film simultaneously salutes the film history before it and opens the door to the films and pop culture lying ahead of it.
Suppose the film blends modern sci-fi themes with themes from the origins of drama.
Suppose this film shoots off two of the most famous lines in movie history in a total of six words.
Would anyone hesitate to call such a film a masterpiece?
Yet we do.
The Empire Strikes Back, the second and best film of George Lucas’s mega-blockbuster Star Wars series, turned 30 on May 21st. Its birthday was celebrated in a number of ways, including a presentation of the film Wednesday at Los Angeles’s ArcLight with star Harrison Ford in attendance.
When Star Wars hit screens in 1977, it immediately re-calibrated the film-making world. The intergalactic adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia, batting the dark-suited malevolence of Darth Vader, gave viewers a thrill-ride jolt with appeal for all ages. Its sequel of three years later, directed by Irvin Kershner, would be met with a certain critical belittling. Coming out of the 1970s era of complex auteur film-making, the allegedly simple space opera saga would be difficult to take too seriously.
Empire has lived to be routinely complimented. It is referred to as “The Greatest Sequel of All Time” or “A Classic of the Sci-Fi Genre.” Yet we sense the hesitations in these descriptions. There seems to be a lingering taboo about making too much of its accomplishments.
And yet, as a film of such enormous accomplishment, Empire deserves to be mentioned in the rarefied air of the Pierrot Le Fous and the Vertigos. It is a near-perfect marriage of substance and spectacle, and the closest thing we’ve seen to Howard Hawks’s ideal of cinema as a popular art form.
Empire has three story-lines. They are balanced, paced and juggled so effortlessly that it is easy to fail to notice the complexity of the script. When Quentin Tarantino does this, they start throwing him Oscars. Poor Lawrence Kasdan only got to make The Big Chill.
After farm-boy hero and budding mystical Jedi warrior Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star at the end of the first film, the Rebel Alliance retreats to the Ice Planet Hoth, as the overwhelmingly powerful Imperial Fleet pursues them. In a brilliant, surreal action sequence, the rebel base is overrun by snow-crunching imperial walkers – giant, impenetrable four-legged metal war machines. The walkers carve out an immediate point of interest. The beastly machines are both impressively powerful and nightmarishly destructive. This is something that will run through the film – the simultaneous fascination and terror that we feel toward technology.
As the base is destroyed, our rebel heroes escape and split up into their own stories. When Luke, Han and Leia meet again, their lives and destinies would change. Luke heads for the swamp planet Dagobah to take instructions from a little green Muppet. He trains under the Jedi master Yoda in learning the power of The Force, the series’ religious power. The young man arrogantly and abruptly departs his training to rescue his friends, captured on the Cloud City of Bespin. He has a rough visit. He fights a light saber duel with Darth Vader. He loses a hand. And he runs into his estranged father.
Bickering, flirting and trading one-liners all the way, Han Solo and Princess Leia (with robot C-3PO and walking-carpet Chewbacca along for the ride) take the Millennium Falcon on a fantastic chase through an asteroid belt with TIE fighters, Boba Fett and Darth Vader in pursuit. They seek refuge with Han’s old frenemy Lando Calrissian on the Cloud City of Bespin. Double-crossed and captured, the group is used by Darth Vader as bait for Luke. Han learns not to forget his jacket in the hotel room. His film ends when he’s dropped into deep freeze, frozen alive in a cast of carbonite.
The third story belongs to Darth Vader. The Man in Black has his orders – relentlessly pursue the blooming Jedi knight Luke and present him to the Emperor for conversion to the Dark Side of The Force. Vader has his own ambitions. Somewhere along the way, he mentions to Luke those famous four little words – “I am your father.”
We’ve mentioned Howard Hawks, and that is not a bad starting place. A favorite Hawks screenwriter, Leigh Brackett, wrote Empire’s first draft. In days of old, Brackett co-wrote The Big Sleep and soloed on Hawks’s classic Western, Rio Bravo.
Her Empire script ended up not being used. Lucas dumped it, took his own whirl, and then handed it to a young screenwriter, Kasdan (who would write scripts for the two greatest blockbusters — Empire and Raiders of the Lost Ark — within the space of several months). While that is the official story, I’ve always wondered how much of Brackett’s script really found the depths of the circular filing cabinet. The reason: Rio Bravo and Empire strike me as similar films.
Rio Bravo contained bits and pieces of nearly every type of film that Hawks ever directed – a lot of Western, a little screwball, even a musical number. Likewise, Empire blends bits of various film styles, with each section of the film embodying its own. Luke’s training under Yoda contains bits and pieces of Kurosawa samurai films flavored with pseudo-religious mysticism. More obvious ancestry lies in Buck Rogers-style sci-fi serials of Lucas’s youth. Time and film-making innovation finally caught up to that sort of storytelling. Lucas and his effects team could take a space-age universe and make it real. Space blockbusters and science-fiction became the future of film-making.
The screwball-style romance that erupts between Han Solo and Princess Leia, as they dodge asteroids and the imperial fleet, is probably the most unexpected element. It has the classic cross-class romance, with the aristocratic heiress Leia doing the whole “I hate myself for loving you” routine and resisting her feelings toward the scruffy-looking nerf herder. But this is a dark film, and no one will end up in a chapel. Instead, it ends in the film’s most perfect line – Han’s “I know” reply to Leia’s “I love you” as he faces the deep freeze. It’s both affectionate and arrogant — perfect.
Kershner gives the film an effectively dark look and feel. Empire marvelously creates a galaxy alive, both physically and emotionally. From the first images of the ice planet Hoth, the temperature seems to drop in the theater. This isn’t just a physical, fictional chill. Along with it, we sense the desperation of the Rebellion. Dagobah plays as the murky ground of the subconscious where, in a cave, Luke will receive his first hint of his secret and his destiny.
When we reach Cloud City, it at first appears as a hovering diamond in the sky. Then, with a betrayal, we move further and further into its darker spaces – to the carbonite chamber to Luke and Vader’s shadowy duel, which takes place in ominous darkness mostly visible by the light of the sabers. Cloud City transforms from a Dream World into an Oedipal nightmare.
Empire is always referred to as the darkest film of the trilogy. The original Star Wars had dark elements. The planet Alderaan takes a bullet from the Death Star, but, with one exception, it’s not like we knew anyone who lived there. Tragedies are quickly wiped away for the next set piece. The damsel is rescued. The Death Star explodes. The good guys win. Everyone gets a medal.
Having two more films at his disposal, Lucas made a gutsy decision — one that almost certainly would not happen in today’s Hollywood: let the bad guys win. Empire leaves behind the crowd-pleasing finale of the original episode and uses its liberty from happy endings to explore its darker themes.
While it is fair to say that Empire is darker, that misses something. The darkness is not there solely to menace. It is there as a test of character. The film immediately reduces Luke from hero of the Death Star to Wampa meat. On Dagobah, the innocent farm-boy learns his family’s deep dark secret and faces the possibility that dark forces could overcome him…yet he leaves the film tested and wiser.
Han Solo, meanwhile, faces his own challenges and continues on his course from the first film, moving from mercenary to friend, to a brave leader and protector, to brave self-sacrifice in the face of a possible frozen death. Han’s deep freeze and Luke’s swan dive point to an interesting curiosity. In the first film, heroism is defined by victory. In Empire, heroism is defined by sacrifice.
Subtly, Empire also tests its villain. As the film begins, Darth Vader can only see human connection as a source of manipulation. His goal is to capture Luke’s friends in order to lure him. However, behind the mask, Empire sends Vader on an emotional journey culminated by the brave resistance of his son. By failing to give the final imperial officer a demotion by strangulation, we sense, in the final scene, the first stirring of his awakening.
Friendship and Duty
Rio Bravo stars John Wayne as a sheriff in a town under siege from an overpowering, malevolent band of outlaws. Facing long odds, a group of friends pull together to help them. Deputy Dean Martin tries to stay sober to help his friend, and Wayne tries to keep him sober to be a man. The main concern of Rio Bravo is the relationship of friendship and duty.
Empire and Star Wars generally often are reduced to “a battle between good and evil.” That element is certainly at work in the film. Some of the reluctance stems from this description – such a simple design suggests an inferior work. Empire is ultimately a work about friendship and duty.
Empire hits its big moment with Luke’s choice – whether or not to abandon his training with Yoda to rescue his friends, captured by Darth Vader in the Cloud City. Yoda considers the completion of Luke’s training essential to defeating Darth Vader. The little green man pleads with him, insisting that battling Vader unprepared will doom the galaxy. It falls on deaf ears, and Luke chooses to save his friends. The choice here is a classic one: does Luke owe his greatest allegiance to himself or to the wider society? Which is the greater duty?
Luke will get a chance to reconsider – this time with one less hand and dangling over the edge. Vader reveals his identity and offers his bargain to rule the galaxy from the Dark Side. Luke’s choice to jump to his apparent death, spared only by movie magic, rather than join the Dark Side demonstrates a responsibility to the wider society, even to the point of self-sacrifice.
In this light, Luke’s choice to ditch Yoda and his training and rush into a fight with Vader seems like a selfish and impetuous one. However, in this choice, we see the seeds of his eventual victory. The prequel trilogy points to this, as the Jedi are religious robots who have never kissed a girl. They eschew emotion and favor the otherworldly to the worldly. The Skywalkers are the only Jedi who fully connect to others on an emotional level.
Luke, as seen in his devotion to his friends, is the only Jedi who still sees the world from a human perspective. Ultimately, he will win in Return of the Jedi because he is the only Jedi who can still see Vader as a human. It’s Luke’s human side that makes him different from previous Jedi — his ability to balance the earthly and the mystical — and proves his eventual source of victory.
It has become popular to criticize George Lucas. With the weakness of the Star Wars prequels and the nonstop merchandising of Star Wars, I can’t say he hasn’t earned some of it. But why dwell on the negative? Looking at the original trilogy, maybe we ought to thank him for a childhood of memories and adventures, and for creating such a masterpiece as fulfilling as Empire.
'The Empire Strikes Back' is in a store near you. Or on a shelf near you. Waiting.